Boquete is the caffeine-fueled, outdoor playground of Panama. The town has a huge community of retiree expats, who are contrasted by young, travelling thrill-seekers signing up for outdoor recreational activities like zip lining, 10-hour volcanic hikes, and white water rafting — the latter is what we decided to sign up for while in Boquete.
Chiquiri Rafting has been running for over 20 years, and they were the first company in Boquete to offer white water rafting. Run by Panamanian Héctor Sanchez, this family-owned operation began in a very organic way. As the story goes, he tossed himself and his young family down the river in a raft, and thought, hey this works! An outdoor thrill-seeker, he had seen similar tourist adventures in Costa Rica, so why not do the same down the Chiquiri River in Boquete?
To commercialize the experience, they brought in professionals from North Carolina (another hot destination for rafting) to train their local Ngobe guides, and invested in safety equipment like lifejackets and proper rafts. So for us now, as tourists in Boquete, we can be tossed down that same river in the safest way possible.
The day we went, we took an alternative route down the Rio Fonseca, with a starting point about two hours South of Boquete.
We had 5 people in our raft, plus our local Ngobe guide. As we began rafting, I realized how much responsibility your guide has to steer you along and ensure a safe journey. The main paddle commands were: Forward, Back, Stop. And on occasion Down! which means you duck down into the raft to duck from a big splash which may propel you over the side of the raft.
One of the guys in our raft DID fall in. Luckily, it was in shallow water so the guide jumped out and stopped the raft and we waited for a few minutes for the guy to waddle his way over rocks back to us.
Unlike kayaking or canoeing, where you are constantly paddling, with white water rafting, you are essentially drifting downstream, using your paddles to steer when the guide instructs you to do so. The experience wasn’t strenuous, and the only time you had to focus were during the rapids. Otherwise you’re drifting lazily down the river, admiring the views and chatting with your raftmates from around the world.
The river was quite low so there were times where the guide had to jump out and push us along. Without a doubt you WILL get wet while rafting. There’s no way to avoid it. At first we were in flip flops, but changed into running shoes even though we waded into knee-deep water to get in and out of the raft. However, when there were rapids, that was the fun part because you’re bumping around and getting splashed (which helps cool you down) and feeling like you’re getting the outdoor adventure you signed up for.
Not part of the typical tour, is that we were invited by Hector’s daughter Kara back to their hacienda, which the dictionary translates as: “a large estate or plantation with a dwelling house”. Hector’s daughter (an entrepreneur, a chef, a restaurant-owner, and a mom), recently moved back from abroad and has made it her personal project to update Hacienda Belina, the family guest home on a coffee farm, which is now rented out on Airbnb to tourists.
Preparation Tips: White Water Rafting in Boquete, Panama
- Avoid Flipflops — wear water shoes or running shoes, even though it means they will get wet.
- Wear sunscreen — four hours on the river in the hottest part of the day means you WILL get burned without sunscreen.
- Wear swim gear under your clothes — we took a short swimming break halfway through our tour
- Go to the bathroom before you begin rafting — the village where we began our rafting trip had no toilets, so we had to find a bush to pee behind. 🙂
- Bring water — sitting in the sun all day means you will be thirsty.
- Bring snacks — keep your energy up. Our tour ended with lunch around 3pm, meaning that most of us were very hungry after a day on the river.
- Bring a change of clothes — you will definitely get wet while rafting, so bring a change of clothes for the ride back.
- Know that it’s a long journey — mentally prepare that it’s a 4-hour round-trip drive to and from the river, and another 4 hours on the water.